Delay in Notifying Coroner Hurt Simpson Case Probe : Investigation: Efforts to pinpoint time of deaths were hampered, tough LAPD policy was violated.
Los Angeles police detectives disregarded state law and their own departmental policy when they waited hours to summon the county coroner to examine the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, documents and interviews show.
The delay--one in a string of late notifications that has frustrated the coroner’s office in recent years--hampered efforts to pinpoint a precise time of death and now looms as a scientific problem in the case against O.J. Simpson, forensic experts say.
Documents show police were warned two years ago that state law required them to notify the coroner immediately in cases of murder and certain other deaths, and Police Chief Willie L. Williams responded by issuing a tough new policy to that effect.
But records show that detectives did not follow those guidelines in the hectic hours after the bodies were discovered at the Bundy Drive murder scene June 13.
In another development, Simpson lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. said Friday night that “the majority view on the defense team is that Simpson should testify” and added that his client “wants to testify” at his trial.
However, he said, “A final decision has not been made because we have not had to make that decision.”
Cochran said he expected “a healthy discussion” on the issue among the defense lawyers. He predicted that differing views would be voiced and that the group would try to forge a consensus and if necessary take a vote.
The Times was unable to reach Simpson’s other lead lawyer, Robert L. Shapiro, on Friday.
Earlier in the day, police spokesman Lt. John Dunkin said he would not discuss why detectives waited to notify the coroner’s office about the bodies. “Those are issues that are going to be examined in detail during the course of the upcoming court trial and it’s not appropriate for us to discuss them outside that setting,” he said.
But a police source close to the investigation added: "(The delay) is not unusual, that’s all I can say.”
California law makes it a misdemeanor for a physician, funeral director “or other person” not to immediately notify the coroner about violent and suspicious deaths, including suicides and murders. The coroner’s office has legal responsibility for determining the manner and time of death.
In the overwhelming majority of murder cases, however, homicide detectives say it is either impractical or unnecessary to call a coroner’s investigator to the scene immediately. It is often obvious how and when a person was killed, they say, and their first duty is to preserve the crime scene for the collection of evidence. Having another official present might disturb such things as fingerprints and bloodstains, detectives said, and the fact that the coroner arrives later is of little consequence.
But in the grisly slayings of Nicole Simpson and Goldman--where the time of death is a crucial element--experts now warn that the 10-hour delay before a coroner’s investigator was allowed to test the bodies is a major investigatory gaffe.
The delay, forensic pathologists say, effectively prevented the coroner from estimating a time for the attack reliable enough for the prosecution to contradict Simpson’s alibi that he was at his Brentwood home at the time of the attack, waiting for a ride to the airport at 11 p.m. Tests performed at the death scene include taking the temperature of the victim’s liver, observing the onset of rigor mortis and testing for how quickly blood has settled into the body’s extremities.
Indeed, Los Angeles Deputy Medical Examiner Irwin L. Golden testified at Simpson’s preliminary hearing in July that the murders were committed “somewhere between 9 (p.m.) and midnight,” and he admitted under cross-examination that the standard measurements upon which he based his decision would have been more accurate if taken sooner.
“The farther away you go from the time of death, the more inaccurate you become,” said Werner U. Spitz, former Wayne County, Mich., medical examiner and author of a widely used forensic pathology textbook.
“The big problem is that the coroner’s office should have been informed immediately because the coroner at the scene would have the ability to take the temperature and make other observations . . . to have a much better foundation for the time of death,” Spitz said.
A more precise time of death also could have been to Simpson’s advantage if it indicated the murders took place after 11 p.m., when a limousine driver testified that the football great got into his car for a ride to the airport. Still, the three-hour period specified by Golden also gives defense attorneys room to raise reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors.
Simpson has pleaded not guilty. Jury selection in the case is expected to begin Sept. 26.
Dean Gilmour, captain of the Los Angeles County coroner’s investigations division, said Friday that in most cases, police and other emergency services have been prompt in giving notification about deaths--but exceptions are noteworthy and disturbing to coroner’s investigators.
He said the Police Department and coroner’s office held a high-level meeting July 26 to try to resolve the long-running notification problem underscored by the Simpson case.
Gilmour said that several years ago he received a call on the midnight shift about a man who had died of a heart attack on a city bus at 3rd and Ord streets that afternoon. “Here, a gentleman had been on the back of the bus for eight hours before we were notified,” he said.
In 1992, coroner’s officials wrote two letters to LAPD Chief Williams reminding him of state law and urging him to make sure the department gave prompt notification.
Craig R. Harvey, chief of the coroner’s operations bureau, wrote July 24, 1992, to complain that police waited seven hours before calling about an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer who was gunned down by an angry motorist near the Los Angeles Convention Center the night before.
And in September, 1992, former coroner’s department Director Ilona Lewis wrote to Williams about how police handled a Metro Rail Blue Line accident in which a driver and his passenger were killed at a crossing gate in South Los Angeles. Lewis said that police never called, although two LAPD traffic divisions were notified, and that the coroner’s office decided to send out investigators after hearing radio reports about the traffic backup.
Williams changed department policy when he issued a special order Nov. 17, 1993, requiring that “the investigating officer at the scene of a death . . . shall make notification immediately upon determining that the death falls within the purview of the coroner’s office. If the coroner is not immediately needed at the scene, the investigating officer shall advise the coroner of an approximate time when the coroner’s deputy can respond.
“When circumstances indicate that the investigation of the death requires the expertise of a specialized investigator (e.g., homicide detective, traffic collision investigator), immediate notification to the coroner shall be made by the concerned specialized investigator who responds to the scene of the incident,” the order says.
Despite Williams’ order, grand jury testimony, court transcripts and coroner’s records show that police waited hours before calling the coroner in the Simpson case.
Led by Nicole Simpson’s dog, a neighbor discovered the bodies about 12:10 a.m., and Gilmour said the coroner’s log showed that both Nicole Simpson and Goldman were pronounced dead by other authorities at 12:45 a.m.
LAPD Homicide Detective Mark Fuhrman testified in the preliminary hearing that his supervisor called him at home about 1:05 a.m. and that he first arrived at Nicole Simpson’s condominium at 2:10 a.m.
“When it became apparent who was involved in this, a determination was made that this was one that would be handled by the Robbery Homicide Division, the elite corps” of homicide detectives, Lt. Dunkin said.
According to grand jury testimony, robbery homicide Detectives Philip Lewis Vannatter and Thomas Lange received telephone calls at home about 3 a.m. Vannatter arrived at the murder scene shortly after 4 a.m. and Lange, his partner, got there about 4:30 a.m.
The detectives testified that they stayed at Nicole Simpson’s condominium until about 5 a.m., when they went to Simpson’s nearby house on North Rockingham Drive.
It wasn’t until 6:55 a.m. that police officially notified the coroner’s office, Gilmour said. “They said, ‘Wait, we’ll call you back when we’re ready,’ ” he said.
Gilmour said police called again at 8:10 a.m. and coroner’s Investigator Claudine Ratcliffe was sent to the murder scene. She arrived at 9:05 a.m. but was asked to wait until shortly after 10 a.m. before she could approach the bodies and begin collecting evidence and performing the standard tests.
Ratcliffe took the bodies to the coroner’s office Downtown about 12:20 p.m., Gilmour said. Golden testified that he relied on Ratcliffe’s field observations and the contents of the victims’ stomachs to place the deaths within a three-hour “range.”
In all, records show, it was more than 10 hours between the time the bodies were discovered and the time Ratcliffe conducted those tests, including a liver temperature test.
Elapsed time from when the first LAPD detective arrived at the scene: about eight hours. Time from when robbery-homicide detectives Vannatter and Lange appeared: about six hours.
“It was a long time,” Gilmour said.
By comparison, he said, LAPD gave late notification in only four other homicides during June and the time lag ranged between three and five hours.